Monthly Archives: March 2013

Information technology and communications (ICT) has impacted strongly on diplomatic systems, bridging to some extent the distance syndrome that dominates the diplomatic networks. One consequence: the relationship between the foreign ministry and the embassy abroad is much closer, and the bilateral embassy has gained in importance for many countries.

The internet provides innovative means for outreach to wide public streams, at home and abroad; “Web 2.0” offers new possibilities that are still under exploration. The foreign ministry website, supplemented by the websites of embassies, provides a starting point. “Intranets” (also called ‘virtual private networks’) permit confi dential exchanges within the country’s diplomatic and public services. Blogs have come into their own both for privileged communication and for open exchanges. Canada has been a leader in the application of net-based communications, for diplomatic training, export promotion and even domestic public outreach; many others have adapted well to the new medium and found their own paths.

Other related changes are as follows:

  • The emergence of the “global information village” has reduced reaction time. Offi cial spokesmen of foreign ministries must react to events as they occur; embassies have to convey local reactions to issues, as they emerge. It has also increased the frequency and diversity of interstate communication.
  • Internet-based social networks are used by foreign ministries and by embassies to reach out to publics, to communicate information, images, and video clips. In the same way, citizens use these networks to exchange ideas and news, circumventing controls imposed by authoritarian regimes. But such regimes are also agile learners of the new techniques, using the same methods for propaganda and to control.
  • Inside the MFA communications are fl atter. ICT permits drafts and proposals to go direct from the desk-offi cers to the top echelons, with copies to the intermediate hierarchy. (In the British and German Foreign Offi ces, seniors do not change drafts from desk-offi cers, though they may give alternatives; embassy recommendations travel similarly to high levels in the MFA, without running the old gauntlet of modifi cation by territorial desks.) This adds to responsibility for young offi cials and for envoys abroad.
  • In a few Western countries, the cipher telegram is threatened (United States and United Kingdom; perhaps less so in Germany or France); it is replaced by the confidential “intranet -based” message sent to a single or limited cluster of recipients (unlike the cipher telegrams which are widely circulated in the government on a standard distribution template). The cipher telegram was a powerful instrument to keep abreast with diverse assessments from overseas missions. In several MFAs the classic dispatch has also withered away—this represents a loss of that comprehensive analysis of a single, usually nonurgent, but important theme. Danger: it produces a fi refi ghting mind-set, perhaps too focused on current tasks. This devalues refl ective analysis of important issues.
  • Some countries pursuing effi ciency prioritize ruthlessly, concentrating on bilateral tasks of direct importance, plus major global and regional issues. This makes embassies more “bilateral” in their activities, less attuned to sustained contact cultivation across a broad spectrum; it also reduces engagement with the diplomatic corps. Embassies that are stripped to the core in manpower sometimes lack reserve capacity for new tasks.

Developing and transitional countries face hard choices in applying ICT. First there is the element of cost, for hardware and software, and the need to replace systems, typically after three or four years.10 Doubts over the security of intranets inhibit countries such as China and India. In contrast, small countries have fewer security worries. At the same time, the opportunity cost of not using modern communications has risen, though this is often not taken into account.


In the past, external affairs drew limited attention from home publics, except during crisis; a national consensus generally supported the country’s foreign policy. The diplomatic machine was insulated from political crosscurrents. It used to be said that politics ended at the country’s borders. That has now changed radically.

Also altered is the old distinction between national policy, as determined by the political leaders, and its execution by an apolitical diplomatic system. The mutual roles are now more permeable, and the boundary is less clear-cut. Professional diplomats are no longer insulated from home politics.

Many countries retain the model of politically neutral civil services (e.g. in the United Kingdom and its former colonies), but this is under strain; at the top levels, offi cials have to be politically acceptable. In Germany, after World War II, civil servants were encouraged to hold their own political affi liation (they even serve in party secretariats on deputation). The French Grandes Ecoles graduates have long had a revolving door relationship, covering the civil services, politics, and the corporate world. The United States runs a highly politicized system of appointment to top administration jobs, including ambassadorships. In many developing countries politics now intrudes openly into the public services; in some Latin American and African countries the majority of envoys sent abroad are political appointees. One challenge: diplomacy is not yet recognized as a specialized profession.

The injection of new issues in the international arena (such as democracy, human rights, universal standards of governance, public accountability) leads to borderline situations where envoy activism in foreign countries can lead to political acclaim at home (for instance, when US and other Western envoys in Kenya pushed for the democratic process in the past 15 years), or political embarrassment (e.g. British Ambassador Craig Murray in Uzbekistan in October 2004, when his criticism of that government’s rights record was initially supported from London, but his subsequent consorting with opposition groups, and leaking of his views to the media, led to his recall9). Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put forward the interventionist notion of “transformational” diplomacy in 2005, but the successor US administration of Barack Obama seems to have retreated from the manipulation of foreign states implicit in that notion.

Foreign ministry professionals have to factor the domestic political impact into their actions; in the British Foreign Office, every proposal that goes to the minister must assess the likely public impact. Professionals fi nd themselves mobilized in support of the political agendas at home. In Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom, envoys attending annual conferences are asked to speak to public audiences in different towns on the country’s foreign policy — we may call this public outreach, but it is also a form of political support for the government. Envoys have to consider reaching out to home political constituencies in building support for their work; in India, it is customary for envoys assigned to key foreign capitals to call on leaders of opposition parties, for two-way dialogue on their tasks.

Diplomacy is a system of the interstate communication and issue resolution. As world affairs have evolved, diplomacy as the process of dialogue and accommodation among states, has adapted, responding to opportunities. The volatility of world affairs has accentuated change, to the point that some foreign ministries treat reform as a continual, incremental activity. Today’s dominant framework conditions are as follows:

  • The MFA is no longer the monopolist of foreign affairs. The MFA has to partner all branches of government, since each has its external activity, goals, and priorities, and it has to reinvent itself as a “coordinator” of all external policy, working closely with them.
  • These agencies respect the MFA for the contribution it makes to their agenda, not for its notional primacy in foreign affairs. This is a hard lesson for many MFAs, because their leadership
  • seemed much more assured in the past. Foreign ministries have to overcome this challenge, working for coherence in external policy.
  • Subject plurality compels the MFA to listen to outside expertise, while also struggling to cultivate in-house knowledge. Professional diplomats need to be both generalists and experts in some specific fields; collectively, they are the MFA’s pool of expertise. To put it another way, they need deep skills in a few areas, plus wide-even-if-shallow lateral skills in other fi elds; they must work harmoniously with other experts and become profi cient at networking.
  • Multiple non-state actors are the MFA’s permanent dialogue partners and stakeholders—that is, agencies active in the media, culture, academia, civil society, NGOs, science and technology (S&T), business, and others. Some of them harbor grievances over past neglect by the MFA.
  • The working environment is polarized. At one end are crisis, conflict prevention, movements of peoples and refugees, plus a range of hard and soft security issues. At the other end, traditional exchanges continue among privileged interlocutors, marked by elegant receptions and the trappings of old world diplomacy.
  • The MFA professionals confront dangers of personal hazard, which makes their work that much harder. They also deal with increasing intercultural diversity. They need broad, continuous training, plus high motivation.
  • The focus of professional diplomats has partly shifted from high diplomacy (involving issues of peace and security, or the negotiation of sweeping interstate accords); some of these are handled directly by heads of government and their offices. The professional now works mainly on low diplomacy: issues of detail, such as building networks aimed at specific areas, trade and other economic agreements, public diplomacy, image building, contacts with infl uential nonofficials, consular diplomacy, education, S&T and the like.
  • High volatility in international affairs means that reaction times are reduced. This demands alertness at MFAs, and at key embassies, on a 24×7 basis.
  • Consular protection and emergency actions have become more visibly important than before, owing to the impact of terrorism and natural disasters. Diasporas are especially important as allies in advancing external relations, though not all countries are clear on their “diaspora diplomacy.”
  • Information and communications technology (ICT) is vital, but most countries are still experimenting, to exploit its full potential. The opportunity cost of neglecting technology is high.

The diplomatic network is tasked with multiple demands at a time when resources and manpower in public service in most countries face cutbacks; foreign ministries are seldom treated as an exception. 7 Some countries still believe that the ideas of performance measurement, accountability or value-for-money are not relevant in their national ethos; it may perhaps only be a matter of time before these become near-universal demands. This is one of the consequences of globalization.